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St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s heavenly flowers and ‘little way’

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By all appearances, St. Thérèse of Lisieux accomplished little in her short life on earth. As a teenager, she followed her older sisters into a Carmelite monastery. At age 24, she died there of tuberculosis. She wasn’t a missionary or teacher or nurse or miracle worker. Even in her own eyes, she was nothing but little.

 

Still, she had a profound hope that God would use her to spread his love after her death. In her final days, she told her sisters, “I feel that my mission is about to begin, my mission of making others love God as I love him, my mission of teaching the little way to souls,” she said. “If God answers my requests, my heaven will be spent on earth up until the end of the world. Yes, I want to spend my heaven doing good on earth.”

 

Today, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whose feast day is Oct. 1, is one of the most well-known and beloved saints. Her writings, turned into the autobiography “The Story of a Soul,” have inspired thousands with her “little way” philosophy. Many who are touched by her faith pray a novena to her for a special request, then wait to receive a rose as acknowledgment that their request has been granted. Her deep spirituality and intercession have inspired devotion around the world, including in the Diocese of Arlington.

 

A life of love

 

Father Noah C. Morey, chaplain at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, has followed in the footsteps of Thérèse by going on a pilgrimage that mirrored one she made with her family to Rome. He traveled with seminarians Mike Sampson and Tim Banach as well as Father Richard E. Dyer, parochial vicar of St. Veronica Church in Chantilly, who has a great devotion to St. Thérèse.

 

The group flew into Paris and then went to Alençon, the site of Thérèse’s childhood home. Next, they traveled to Lisieux where the family later lived and where Thérèse’s entered the convent. “It was really neat to see the artifacts, her room or the place where she attended Mass,” said Father Morey. “Sometimes the saints seem so far away, not just geographically but we forget their humanity. I think being able to see the childhood home or seeing the church where she prayed made it a lot more real.” 

 

Visitors to her home learn that Marie-Francoise-Thérèse Martin was born Jan. 2, 1873 to Louis, a watchmaker, and Zelie, a lace maker. The couple was canonized together in 2015. Thérèse was the youngest of their nine children, though only five, all daughters, lived to adulthood. When Thérèse was 4, her mother died and her older sisters became mother figures to her. One by one they entered religious life, and Thérèse was desperate to do the same.

Father Noah C. Morey, chaplain at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, and Father Richard E. Dyer, parochial vicar of St. Veronica Church in Chantilly, pose after celebrating Mass in Alençon, birthplace of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. FR. NOAH C. MOREY  |  COURTESY 

 

st therese 1 In her early teen years, her bishop and the mother superior of the Carmel Lisieux convent denied Thérèse’s request to enter religious life due to her young age. But she wasn’t deterred. While at a papal audience in Rome, Thérèse begged Pope Leo XIII to allow her to enter early. At long last, she entered the novitiate the next year at age 15.

 

Father Morey appreciated both the sights of France and Italy and St. Thérèse’s message, such as her emphasis on trusting in the love of God. “We think that we have to earn God’s love, but she shows us that very simple faith and trust is enough to get us started and then it’s just a matter of being faithful,” he said. “Even though she wanted to become a great missionary, even though she wanted to do all these great things for God, she recognized her vocation was love, in the place where she was. We don’t have to do big things but rather it’s about being in relationship with the God who loves us.”

 

The ’little way’

 

Pedro Lopez, a parishioner of All Saints Catholic Church in Manassas, was first introduced to St. Thérèse through a former girlfriend who was named after the French saint. “We prayed to her together and I started learning more about her and I thought, she’s actually pretty cool,” said Lopez. “After the relationship ended, I was like, ‘I just can’t leave this behind.’ I was forming a spiritual relationship with St. Thérèse.”

 

Reading the book “33 Days to Merciful Love” by Father Michael Gaitley, which is based on St. Thérèse’s spirituality, further cemented Lopez’ love for the saint. His prayer life especially was influenced by the “little way.”

 

“Every time I was in adoration, I couldn’t pray because I was aiming for something I just couldn’t reach. I was trying to talk to God (by) having a formal conversation,” he said. “Through praying to St. Thérèse and asking her to lead me to Christ in the way that she met him, I learned that when I’m in adoration, I don’t even have to talk. I can sit in front of Our Lord and appreciate him, not just because I’m looking at him but because he’s looking at me.”

 

Throughout her autobiography, St. Thérèse refers to herself as many tiny things: a little bird, a little child, even a little paintbrush that Jesus uses to paint his image. But she’s most popularly known as the little flower and is often portrayed with flowers, particularly roses. In her writings, flowers are often symbols for acts of love.

 

In one chapter, she addresses God, saying, “No other means have I of proving my love than to strew flowers; that is, to let no little sacrifice escape me, not a look, not a word, to avail of the very least actions and do them for Love. I wish to suffer for Love's sake and for Love's sake even to rejoice; thus shall I strew flowers.”

 

Roses from heaven

 

Melissa Gorfida, a parishioner of St. Patrick Church in Fredericksburg, had two powerful encounters with St. Thérèse and her flower-strewing ways. Years ago, her cousin Mary was in a terrible car accident and was taken to the hospital for treatment. Her aunt Georgene had a great devotion to St. Thérèse and began to pray a novena for her daughter’s recovery. “She’s always done the novena and gotten a sign of roses, or she hasn’t gotten a sign of roses and realized it wasn’t going to be affirmed,” said Gorfida.

novena 1 “After about a week of Mary being in the hospital between life and death,” a priest Georgene had never seen before walked into the hospital room, said Gorfida. “He went over to Mary and he kissed her. He came over to Georgene and said, ‘Mary is giving the roses to Mary in heaven.’ (My cousin) had tears running down her face and then she died.” The family never discovered the identity of the priest.

 

Years later when Gorfida’s father died, she remembered the St. Thérèse novena. “I had never experienced a death before of someone close to me. I came back from the funeral and went back to my life and thought, ‘OK, is he in purgatory? Where’s Dad?’ I just wanted to know where he was,” she said. So, she began to pray the novena. “I want to know if he’s in heaven. I want to know that he’s in a much better place. That was my request,” she said.

 

A few days later, her husband Peter, who’s a teacher, was approached by one of his female students. A boy had given her a flower, but she didn’t like him and didn’t want to lead him on. So she asked Peter to take the rose to his wife instead. “I came home from work and that rose was waiting for me,” said Gorfida. “I was like, I just got my answer.”

 

More than 100 years after her death, it’s clear St. Thérèse’s little life has changed the world through her beautiful words and what many believe are her powerful acts of heavenly love on earth. “She definitely listens,” said Gorfida.

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020

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